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Current Trends and Challenges for the Future of Higher Education for Development in Southeast Asia

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Higher education was a key element in the East Asian miracle, the success story of Asian giants such as Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The World Bank’s 1993 The East Asian Miracle report noted that higher education investment, especially in the area of technical and vocational training, was a crucial factor in improving human capital. These East Asian governments did invest financially in their higher education sector, for example, Singapore’s focus on building world-class universities and training people in information technology. While these governments did invest their own finances in higher education, donors, however, have provided more financial aid to higher education budgets as well as development expertise. For example, Singapore’s then University of Singapore’s (today’s National University of Singapore) infrastructure was aided by a World Bank loan in 1972. Further up in Northeast Asia, South Korea similarly used a US$ 100 million loan in 1984 to improve the quality of science and technology courses in its colleges.

 

In recent decades, other Southeast Asian nations have developed and implemented higher education blueprints, similarly investing in higher education and gaining the aid of international development organisations. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) was active in aiding Malaysia by providing loans through the “Higher Education Loan Fund Project” and sponsoring scholarships for Malaysian students at the turn of the 21st century.

 

Vietnam’s Higher Education Reform Agenda, initiated in 2005, was financed by government and foreign aid funding. This pattern of investing in higher education and complementing it with foreign assistance will likely continue as more East Asian countries recognise the importance of higher education.

 

THOUGHTS ON THE PROGRESS OF EAST ASIAN EDUCATION

With this continued drive to improve higher education by this dynamic region by both governments and donors, there are four points that should be considered.

 

First, while higher education is essential, governments should not ignore the value of primary and secondary education. These other forms education naturally aid the creation of higher education and related institutions; if they are of high quality, tertiary education is also likely to be so. Publications such as The East Asian Miracle have noted how primary education helped to rapidly improve human capital amongst the East Asian Tigers. This is not to argue that more finances should allocate towards these forms of education. Rather, there should be a careful consideration when considering financing different levels of education.

 

Second, and following suit, in this era of increasing access and numbers of higher education institutions, Southeast Asian governments should constantly reflect on the role of higher education. Despite the above growth of higher education institutions, there is little empirical evidence that higher education has any impact on economic growth. Certain higher education subjects such as history and humanities subjects do improve individual human capital. They, however, do not always increased the productivity of future workers. Stakeholders should focus on the type of education, such as type of courses offered, in order to create a positive impact on productivity and growth. Some Southeast Asian governments have carefully carved higher education institutions for improving productivity, for example Singapore’s Singapore Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Given the high cost of creating and maintaining high quality institutions, countries should still tread cautiously when investing in them.

 

Third, there needs to be a careful balance meeting global targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing local needs via higher education. This is a challenging issue to balance given that donors would still constantly urge recipients to meet global targets. For example, donors have been focused on the fourth Sustainable Development Goal and its sub-objectives. Donors may also focus their aid towards other objectives such as gender equality. It is not incorrect to aim towards topics such as access and quality of institutions. Yet, this may clash national priorities such as improving Technical and Vocational Education and Training in Malaysia or English language proficiency in Indonesia. Both donors and recipient countries should use global targets and shaped their objectives towards local concerns that could be addressed by higher education. As Jan Vandermoortele, one of the architects of the Millennium Development, notes, such context specific setting requires careful consideration, and countries should not bear a stigma for not focusing on global goals.

 

A fourth topic would be the embracing of new donors and new ideas. These new donors, many of which were previous aid recipients themselves, have also embarked on higher education development projects. China is one of these new donors and has been providing scholarships and training to Southeast Asian students in both Chinese and local universities.

 

They have also improved higher education-related institutes such as providing an electronic library to the Royal Academy of Cambodia. These donors, however, are not fully transparent in their financial assistance or projects, possibly resulting in inhibiting development and increasing corruption in Southeast Asian nations. New donors bring different ideologies to education, especially alternatives to the economiccentric, neoliberal policies from established donors. While some of these new donors are seeking to improve the transparency of their higher education projects, this push for transparency and coordination must be strengthened and sustained.

 

Southeast Asian and East Asian governments will continue to improve their higher education systems and governments through government financing and foreign assistance. As they progress, they should consider the utility of other forms of education and how higher education can improve worker productivity. As donors assist governments, both should not simply aim towards global goals but shape them to suit local needs. The ideas of new donors are also to be welcomed, but such projects must be transparent.

LI JIE SHENG

Li Jie Sheng is a research analyst who writes about political economy and international development.

JANUARY 2018 | ISSUE 3

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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